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TV & Movies

J.J. Abrams and the Secrets of ‘Skywalker’

The writer and director on the challenge of ending the saga, fan criticism, and respecting George Lucas’ vision
Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.

D irector J.J. Abrams is trying to talk about his new Star Wars movie, but the process of making it keeps intruding. He’s in his office on the second floor of his Bad Robot production company’s Willy Wonka-worthy headquarters in Santa Monica, and his assistant keeps opening the door to pass him notes, as Abrams’ iPhone buzzes with increasingly urgent-seeming texts from the film’s visual-effects supervisor. He’s fresh from a stage over at Sony Studios, where John Williams was conducting an orchestra through the score for December 20th’s Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Just last week, Abrams was doing reshoots right here at Bad Robot, in a green-screen room that allows him maximum movie-tweaking flexibility. It’s mid-October, and the film is 71 days away from release.

Episode IX was supposed to be written and directed by Colin Trevorrow of Jurassic World fame, until Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy reportedly rejected his screenplay, though Lucasfilm calls it a mutual parting of ways. That opened the door for Abrams, who directed 2015’s The Force Awakens, to jump back in with co-screenwriter Chris Terrio and start from scratch — hence the current crunch.

“It’s probably a lot easier than being a schoolteacher,” Abrams says. “But it has very particular challenges. Especially when you’re directing, and you’ve got people in the scene that aren’t human. When you have, in some cases, a scene with someone no longer living.” Among the trials of Episode IX, in addition to forging a satisfying conclusion to one of the most loved stories of the modern world, was dealing with the tragic and sudden 2016 death of Carrie Fisher. Unlike Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, the character of Leia is still alive in the saga, a dilemma Abrams resolved via unused Force Awakens footage.

Abrams just struck a massive production deal with Disney rival WarnerMedia, which could get his hands on Superman, Batman, and the rest of the DC Comics pantheon — there are a notable number of Superman toys among the whimsical decorations downstairs. “We haven’t had those discussions yet,” Abrams says, not quite convincingly.

Just as with The Force Awakens, you have a tighter deadline than you might’ve wanted. Did you have a better sense of how hard this would be?
I don’t know if I knew exactly, because this one is so much more ambitious than the first one.

How so?
It’s an ending. It’s not a beginning. It’s the end of not just one trilogy but three. It’s a far larger movie in terms of scale. Narratively, there’s much more going on everywhere I look — visual effects, more moving pieces. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever been involved in. By a lot. It’s been breakneck from the time that Kathy called me, and trying to figure out the what and the why and the how has been challenging. But you don’t want to go thinking, “I got this.” Because then you’re screwed.

Why must this be the end of the Skywalker saga?
I felt going into this, even on [Episode] VII — I don’t remember if this was discussed or not, but it felt like this was the final trilogy. It felt like it earned being the conclusion of that story. Who’s to say what comes next? Is there something else to be done that involves any of these characters? I’m working on nothing [Star Wars-related], so I’m not hinting at anything. I’m just saying, who’s to know, but it just felt like the end.

There was a certain amusing irreverence in Rian Johnson’s approach to The Last Jedi — he subverted some of what you set up. Snoke seemed like the major villain, for instance, and he killed him off.
When I read his first draft, it made me laugh, because I saw that was his take and his voice. I got to watch cuts of the movie as he was working on it, as an audience member. And I appreciated the choices he made as a filmmaker that would probably be very different from the choices that I would have made. Just as he would have made different choices if he had made Episode VII.

What surprised you most in what he did?
I felt the biggest surprise was how dark Luke was. That was the thing that I thought: “Oh, that was unexpected.” And that’s the thing The Last Jedi undeniably succeeds at, which is constant subversion of expectation. The number of things that happened in that movie that aren’t the thing you think is going to happen is pretty fun.

How did all those unexpected plot points affect where you brought the story?
I had a real sense with [Force Awakens co-screenwriter] Larry Kasdan about where things would go, potentially. And I think that, when I read Rian’s script, what I felt was that with everything that happens in that movie, and quite a lot does, nothing sort of obviated a sense of inevitability where I thought the story could go.

What was your process like with your co-writer on this movie, Chris Terrio?
He really is such a brilliant human, and the way he approaches everything is kind of scholarly. Whatever he’s working on, he’ll read up on it in a way that is so impressive. He will often carry with him a literal pile of books that he’s reading. It was fascinating working with someone who was so well-versed in the extended universe. As much as I read some books and watched some of the animated series and read some stories, Chris’ level of knowledge really was as close [as you could get] to Pablo Hidalgo, the guy at Lucasfilm, who is sort of like the vault of Star Wars information.

But the process has really just been, as one might expect, talking through story, finding things that make us emotional and going with our gut the best we can. Listening to critiques and criticisms and trying to make it better as we go. Not being afraid of the better idea. Usually we’ll talk through a scene and then we’ll each go off and write different scenes and then share them and then do passes on each other’s scenes and come up with something. And he’s been great not just in the writing of the movie, but during the movie and even in post, helping make it better, losing things that we keep trying to make work but don’t, and realizing, let’s just cut it. He’s here now, he’s downstairs.

Star Wars arrived a few years after Nixon’s resignation and the Vietnam War’s end, and it was very much in contrast to downbeat films by some of Lucas’ peers. This new trilogy arrives in troubled times as well.
Certainly politically you can find parallels, but in terms of moviegoing, it’s a very different moment. But I don’t know if it’s ever a bad time to have something that feels honest and hopeful at the same time.

Do you need to end on a note that’s true to the joy of the first one?
Well, you certainly want to feel like it was worth the journey, and like there’s something satisfying — without talking about happy or sad endings. The challenge was to find a way to be consistent, honor what’s come before, but also do something that’s unexpected. It had to be something that feels like it’s part of the piece but relevant to today. And then, while you’re on the tightrope, you want to dance. You want the thing to have delight. So you’re on this razor’s edge.

You gave a now-famous Ted Talk where you spoke about stories as mystery boxes, based on an actual, still-unopened mystery box your grandfather gave you. How does that fit with a movie like this, an ending where you have to show all of your cards?
It’s not a driving force at all. I’m not actively thinking, “How do I employ mystery-box strategy to this story?” What I meant was just that a good story makes you want to understand what’s going on, what makes it tick, what’s inside. And it was my friend and talented producer Bryan Burk who, when I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to talk about at the Ted Talk, said, “Why don’t you talk about that box you have?”

So the whole thing has become wildly overblown in your narrative?
Well, I never think about it, so whenever someone brings it up, I’m always like, “Oh, yeah, that thing.” It’s not to say I still don’t feel like a good story forces you to ask a question. But an ending needs to be, by definition, conclusive. I keep imagining a kid watching these nine movies a hundred years from now, so there needs to be a sense of inevitability and continuity to it. But again, if you’re not having fun, if you’re not at least trying to be delightful, you’re doomed. So there are things in the movie that, I think, might be crazy — but are some of my favorite things. And whether people accept them is up to them.

Rey has a whole fan base of her own. What was the original idea behind the character?
The idea was to tell a tale of a young woman who was innately powerful, innately moral, innately good, but also struggling with her place in the world and forced to fend for herself in every way. As exciting as it was to get to play in the Star Wars universe, it was this young woman that I felt oddly compelled to get to know. Even at the very first meeting with Kathleen Kennedy, the idea came up about having a female at the center of it. There was an inherent sense of “We’ve seen the story before of the young hero,” but we’d never seen it through the eyes of a woman like this, and that, to me, was the most exciting thing.

One criticism of The Force Awakens is that it stuck closely to elements of the first trilogy, but that was sort of the point in some ways, wasn’t it?
And I completely get the criticism, and for those who found it too much of an overlap, I say, “I totally hear you and respect the review.” But the idea was to continue the story and to begin with this young woman who felt like Luke Skywalker was a myth. And to tell a story that was not just history repeating itself, but a story that embraced the movies that we know as the actual history of this galaxy. So that they are still living in a place where there is good versus evil, they’re still living in the shadow of what has come before, still grappling with the sins of the father and the people who have preceded them. This was not about a nostalgia play. It felt, to me, like a way of saying, “Let’s go back to a Star Wars that we know, so we can tell another story.”

Another criticism, from older fans, is that these movies aren’t really about the original heroes. Did part of you want this to be more of Luke, Leia, and Han’s story?
It certainly could have been their story. But it felt like the way to use them was to be in support of a new story. The great thing about Star Wars fans is they care so much. And even those who are the most cynical or the most negative are still people who, for the most part, embrace what’s being done, even just as fodder for debate. All I can say is that the main characters in this trilogy felt naturally connected to those characters that came before.

In Bob Iger’s book, he says he told you that The Force Awakens was a $4 billion movie, in the sense that the success of Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm was riding on your work. You were not amused, he writes.
I was amused. But I also expected that because I knew that what he and Disney had invested were no small stakes, and he was looking at this for at least some evidence that there was a [successful] business there for him. I could not appreciate more the stakes for him. And every time I work for someone, I want to only do well for them, and I look at it and think of it as if it were my money. So I would never approach this lightly or feel like, “They got 4 billion more where that came from.”

He also reveals George Lucas’ dissatisfaction with The Force Awakens. How did you feel about that then, and how do you feel about it now?
I’ve only had gratitude for George. It’s probably a complicated thing for him. To decide you’re going to sell this thing that you created, that was your baby, to anyone — that must be more complicated than signing a check and smiling about it. But he’s been incredibly gracious. He’s been super-generous.

He came over, we had a meeting when we first started working on this [new movie], talked through a ton of different ideas and stories, and heard from him what was important. And we’ve done nothing but try and adhere to some fundamental aspects of the story. It wasn’t a difficult thing to try and do. And again, he was really gracious. So I’m only grateful. Do I wish that [Force Awakens] had been his favorite movie of all time? Yes, I only wanted to do well by him. I would just say that I have nothing but profound respect for the guy and am still truly, even more so now, working on these movies in awe of what he created.

One thing you hear from people is that the character of Rey feels preternaturally gifted, even for a Jedi — that she learns things faster than, say, Luke Skywalker ever did.
Yeah, spooky, right? [Smiles] It’s a fair point. It’s not an accident.

There’s a moment in The Force Awakens when an entire solar system — billions of beings — is killed, but it doesn’t really land emotionally.
We originally had a character that we got to know who was on the Republic planet when it was destroyed. But it felt a bit beside the point, and in the re-editing, we ended up losing this whole chunk of Leia scenes that we had prior.

Which, of course, turned out to be what you needed for this film, right?
Exactly. It’s an odd thing, if you say someone was killed five blocks away, you have a reaction to that tragic news. If you say a thousand people were killed by a bomb, you almost can’t process the idea of a thousand people, 10,000 people, a million people, 5 billion people. It’s really hard to have an emotional reaction. So, you’re right, it would have been great if there was more time spent mourning these people, but the more people you talk about, weirdly, the harder it is for people to absorb and feel something.

It’s funny, Lucas wanted scenes on the doomed planet Alderaan in the first Star Wars, but never shot them, for budgetary reasons.
Oh, really? He didn’t need it, and obviously, I would argue it’s a perfect movie.